San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011 – Opening Night and Big News!

It’s a privilege to be able to cover the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I admire silent film greatly as an artform, and can understand why many of the greats said it was pure cinema. Over the next few days I will post recaps and will introduce the following day’s programs, so you will remain updated!

First, the big news, which was introduced to us in part by film historian Kevin Brownlow:

Next year, on March 24, 25, 31, and April 1st, 2012, Abel Gance’s 1927 film “Napoleon” will be shown in its entirety for the first time in U.S. history.

This work is considered to be, still, one of the most daring and epic works in the history of film – its runtime is around 5 and a half hours, and parts of the film require three projectors to simultaneously play.

It will be showing at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.

This is going to be an amazing experience, and one which I wouldn’t miss for the world. Tickets go on sale on Monday, July 18th.

For the programming…

The opening program started with a whimsical touch, and carried it through. The opening film was a short called “Why Men Flirt”, a genuinely funny short film about a wife taking revenge on her cheating husband.

This led quickly into the film “Upstream” by John Ford. As an early Ford film, it was lost for many years to the USA, and was recently discovered in an archive in New Zealand. With help from that country, as well as Peter Jackson’s studio, a restoration has made great progress and it has now returned to the American universe of film.

“Upstream” is an interesting and charming story about a down and out group of actors trying to make ends meet. Suddenly, one man, a particularly humble and downtrodden man, gets a call to go to England to play Hamlet. He instantly becomes enormously egotistical (the sequence in which this happens as he looks in the mirror is hilarious and classic) and forgets everyone he knew, including one love interest. The characters are strange and interesting, the dialogue (intertitles, naturally) is truly witty, the mood is overall lighthearted. It is also, fortunately, almost devoid of moralizing, which is rare for a film of this topic and of this time; the ending is not entirely as one would expect.

The musical accompaniment, the Donald Sosin Ensemble, was fantastic. They tried, and overall succeeded, to dynamically follow the film’s pace and mood. One particularly impressive moment is when a character in the film starts playing piano, and the pianist followed him; cut to upstairs, where the main character is, and the pianist played more quietly but with the same intensity, as though there was simply a roof between us and the pianist.

The second program of the night was Sunrise by F.W. Murnau.

What can I say about this film? It’s one of my absolute favorites, and was my third viewing of it. The story is classic – a married country man starts to fall for a woman (femme fatale), and she suggests he kill his wife. He attempts to, but in the end can’t, and guilt tears at him as he tries to redeem himself to her. This is all I will say if you haven’t seen it. The film is full of symbolism and uses the format of film as a subjective psychological journey: the scenes we see are based entirely on the “health”, for lack of a better term, of the relationship of the two main characters (aptly called only “the man” and “the woman” to display that all humans are merely humans). When the mood is suspenseful and guilty, the earth shifts and we see things which follow suit. If the mood is hopeful, suddenly we see that. The feeling of his guilt being assuaged is shown through the almost absurdly up-tempo carnival scene, which climaxes in a pig getting drunk and a silly peasant dance. Then the storm, the return of the guilt as reality destroys of the illusion of the city – this is one of the most intense psychological manifestations ever shown on screen.

The musical accompaniment is naturally going to draw mixed criticism – it was a solo electric guitarist (Giovanni Spinelli) accompanying a silent film with an original score. Unfortunately, it did not work for me and overall detracted from the experience. I will admit that it is for very unique reasons to my own personal taste which caused this – some elements which bothered me will be more universal, such as his usage of distortion (which occasionally felt almost like a trashy powermetal song). The special effects were often very interesting when they were devoid of musical structure, but as soon as he started to create a structure he relied on common rock customs which completely took me out of the reality of the film and, on top of that, often didn’t seem to fit the intended mood. Two moments were memorably good – the beginning of the carnival sequence, and the ending sequence on the boat. Almost everything else did not work for me; his use of blues-based rock riffs, his all-too frequent use of minor pentatonic scales… one chord structure which resembled a Journey song was one of the least distracting, strangely enough.

Perhaps I’m too old of a soul, or perhaps I’m too easily critical of other guitarists, being a guitarist myself who grew up in – and has become jaded with – rock. Now you know my bias. And that’s certainly not to say that I could do better. I must admit that his composition was interesting as a unique work itself, with many well-orchestrated layers and unique effects that he obviously spent a lot of time to carefully craft, and when I considered it separately I was impressed. Indeed, whenever I looked at him and watched him I was impressed; not to mention that it is no small feat to accompany a film as a solo performer. And in that sense he is a very talented composer and guitarist. But I should not be so compelled to watch him; often I felt that I watched him because when I looked at the screen, the sounds I was hearing didn’t match the atmosphere of what I was seeing. And so in that respect it simply did not work for me as a soundtrack to Sunrise. Props for the innovative and ambitious attempt though!

Schedule for tomorrow (7/15/11):
11:00 am – Amazing Tales from the Archives I
2:00 pm – Huckleberry Finn
4:15 pm – I Was Born, But… (an early Ozu film!)
7:00 pm – The Great White Silence (an early documentary of an Antarctica expedition!)
9:30 pm – Il Fuoco

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Categories: Festivals, Silent Film Festival

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